Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Non-Violence and the Doubtful Meaning of "Vegan"

A lot of people might think that the standard definition of a "vegan" in the animal rights movement, as someone who avoids all animal products, is perfectly acceptable, transparent, straightforward, and coherent. Those people are wrong. Coming up with an appropriate sense for what a "vegan" is can be difficult, and is a challenge for thinking persons. This short paper will try to shed light on this territory as I have neither seen nor heard of any satisfactory resolution of this debate. The skeptics seem to have the upper hand, presently, and I do not think that is a rightful state of affairs, even if it is right to say that it presently exists.

To motivate this discussion, and to get a sense of where the very real problems start to creep in, please consider the following. My friend, Prad Basu, brought to my attention the "Nobody Is A Vegan" Argument. Let us call it NIAVA for short. Prior to that I only heard the "nobody is a perfect vegan" claim, which is much more modest and not particularly problematic, I suppose. After all, who is perfect? The more radical, and challenging NIAVA proposition is discussed in the article that Prad referred to me.

As I would reconstruct it, the NIAVA argument, rendered in standard form for philosophy discussions, seems to consist in the following:

  1. A vegan is someone who consumes no animal products.
  2. But even self-styled "vegans" are implicated in stearate in the consumption of tires, the glue on fruit-stickers, or in fixatives underneath computer keys.
  3. Therefore self-styled "vegans" consume animal products.
  4. Therefore self-styled "vegans" are not really vegan.
  5. Everybody consists of self-styled "vegans" and everybody else.
  6. Everybody else is not vegan either.
  7. That leaves us with: Nobody is a vegan.
This is a powerful argument. Someone might say that one could be a perfect dietary vegan. I have met activists who have declared themselves to be dietary vegans. But this is naive. Many small animals are killed in the growing of crops, and not just insects. Rodents and rabbits too. And birds on the ground. In any case, a lot of people would agree that the premises of the above argument are true, but that the conclusion could not possibly be right. It could be demonstrated that the deduction of the conclusions from the premises (the earlier statements in the argument, or the basis of the conclusion being argued) is valid. That means that if the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true or we end up with a self-contradiction. For example, we cannot assert both that a vegan consumes no animal products, but that the actual vegan lifestyle involves the consumption of animal products. That would be patently incoherent because self-contradictory. No, it is not the logical validity of the conclusions flowing from the premises that is the problem. Rather, it is the truth of the "common-sense" definition in the very first line, as it turns out. But I need to defend this position.

Consider the article in question by Jon Fergus, as retrieved on August 6, 2012. He may change or abolish it later, but in any case, I will use information retrieved presently as part of my discussion here, for illustrative purposes. The author in question argues that there should be a minimum threshold for veganism. Just as light and dark does not involve absolute light and absolute dark, he skillfully argues, so we can say the same thing for veganism. But although I admire his thoughtful approach, there are still two key problems with his counter-argument to NIAVA (in effect, since he does not spell out a NIAVA in his short essay). First, would it not be arbitrary to set a threshold? What is the criterion for the threshold? Veganism? But that is just our original problem. (Actually, his threshhold is "the minimum requirement", discussed below; but I argue below that this amounts to veganism). The other problem is that this counter-argument undermines the idea of veganism as an absolute thing. So one can drink some milk and still be a vegan? After all, one does not need to be perfect on this argument. But that seems wrong.

Furthermore, according to Mr. Fergus (whom I do not know), the minimum requirement for being vegan is, and I quote his article here:

The minimum requirement to be vegan is to no longer directly, actively, knowingly participating in the exploitation and imposed-suffering of sentient beings.

Unfortunately, though, one could contend that someone who rides on tires, buys bananas with animal-glue stickers, and uses computer keyboards is not vegan, because using these things is active and direct enough, and knowing (if one knows). Mr. Fergus suggests that veganism is an unreachable ideal, and that we need to pursue it, but the implication is that we can only succeed by degrees. And if it is not a reachable ideal, then it sounds like no one will reach the status of being vegan, and therefore no one will be a vegan, again reducing to NIAVA. And the argument pro the minimum requirement he gave in the passage quoted above might rule out dairy (because of its implication in exploitation and imposed suffering), but at the price of seemingly ruling out veganism in general. I say this because as I just showed, he would have to rule out keyboard-glue and the rest of it too. And in that case, there goes veganism, because there would be no vegans in that case. Unless someone is ultra-fanatical and abstains from associating with absolutely all animal products everywhere. They might not be able to enter a lot of buildings though! And who knows what else.

I would prefer a different approach to answering NIAVA, lest veganism wash over a cliff into oblivion as we see with the mighty waters continuously heaving over NIAGARA Falls. Let's not go over the NIAVA Falls. My wife has a relative who tried going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. That person made it, but will our own counter-argument?

Okay. First, we need to distinguish between vegans as persons and veganism as an idea. Some thing that is vegan is devoid of animal products. Fair enough? If I buy buns with cheese in them, they are not vegan. But veganism meaning no animal products and vegan things containing no animal products are different from ethical vegans. If I define an ethical vegan as I did in the NIAVA argument, I do indeed run into logical troubles as the argument shows. So I cannot define a "vegan" as "someone who consumes no animal products".

But the definition I will use is common-sensical enough, and avoids the following problems:

  1. arbitrary thresholds
  2. conceding that ethical veganism is not absolute, and instead some kind of "fuzzy" relative notion
  3. making veganism a matter of degrees; it is then debatable whether whether it can really be achieved
  4. allowing really non-vegan products in through the back door, such as a bit of dairy in that muffin because no one is perfect, and no vegan has to be. One might try to confine the imperfection to odd bits as in our three examples, but so far that seems to be completely arbitrary, and so we might as well allow one if we allow the other, for all that has been really argued
How do we avoid these problems?

I will address this definitional problem by arguing that a vegan is someone who is seeking to avoid animal products as much as is possible for anyone in life who uses the principle of non-violent approximation. I will need to explain. Notice that this is different from Mr. Fergus' definition of someone who "no longer directly, actively, knowingly participates in the exploitation and imposed-suffering of sentient beings". Because I admit that the keyboard I am typing on may involve glue from animals. And I could conceivably never type on a keyboard again. Note that I defend ethical veganism on the basis of non-violence ethics in my essay, "Veganism versus Violence".

In that essay, I coin a principle called "the principle of non-violent approximation". The way it runs is something like this. Whenever it is possible for us simply to avoid all violence in a situation, we should go ahead and do that. That means no more meat, dairy, honey, and so on. However, in a situation in which violence is inevitable, that is, choosing in ways that conduce towards the violation of sentient beings, then we should choose the option with the lesser violence. That literally approximates non-violence as much as possible. Hence the name of my principle. The example I gave in the essay is defence. Violence will happen either way if someone is intent on attacking. And the least violence may well be defence, especially given that the attacker may want to be violent.

Okay, well, let's revisit our examples in this new light. I could stop buying fruit with labels using animal glue. But then I might not be healthy in some situations in which that is the only kind of fruit available without taking the car a long distance and thus contributing to environmental effects that violate sentient beings. Or without paying exorbitant amounts of cash that (a) I do not possess; and (b) could go towards saving sentient beings from violation, including monies payable to Oxfam, or animal rights causes, or what-have-you. But this is not a black-and-white issue. It WOULD be highly appropriate of me to be mindful of this issue and perhaps avoid produce with sticky-labels, at least some of the time. And clearly, since absolute non-violence is to be practised where possible, society SHOULD ban the use of all animal glue eventually. Indeed, ASAP.

I could stop typing right now and leave off computers for the rest of my life, as a sort of crude non-violence. That is, washing my hands of anything connected with violence. But the harm of my not contributing as an activist author would be far greater than anything I could accomplish by personally and permanently boycotting keyboard glues. Similar arguments apply to my not banning car, plane and other sorts of travel. I'm sure planes, trains, and automobiles all have animal products in them. But they also feature me as an animal product occasionally too, an animal rights sort of animal. (I am, in part anyway, an animal product in the sense that my parents got my genetic stuff together, and I also benefited from their animalian ministrations.)

So the best sense or definition of "vegan" seems to be:


Someone who practices a non-violent lifestyle in terms of products and services consumed and therefore:

  1. avoids animal products as much as possible by practising non-violence absolutely where possible (e.g., no flesh foods or dairy)
  2. approximating non-violence as much as possible in all other cases by choosing the lesser harm (e.g., not boycotting computers, a campaign that would have very little positive effect - we'll get there when someone makes a vegan computer - and instead using computers as part of high-powered activism); and
  3. calling for a vegan society - simply - in the long run.

Or a vegan avoids animal products in general as a short definition. The exceptions to the rule can be left to more detailed analysis such as I have started here.

Vegan animal rights activists are sometimes dismissive of theory. But I do not honestly see how we can make a sound definition of "vegan" without a refined non-violence theory that goes beyond simply avoiding anything to do with violence - which is impossible anyway as I in effect pointed out. As existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, argued, it is not valid for someone to claim to choose not to choose, for that too is a choice. Whatever life we will generally choose in this age has violent consequences to some degree, and in various ways.

So this theory of veganism as a sophisticated non-violent lifestyle avoids definitions or senses of "vegan" that simply do not work:

  1. Someone who avoids all animal products - that leads to NIAVA
  2. Kicking all theory aside and saying one is "practical" in one's sense of "vegan". Well, guess what? You cannot just practice the definition of "vegan" that is current, or rather, no one seems to wish to - and rightly so.
  3. Or Jon Fergus' definition of a vegan as someone who at minimum "no longer [sic - actually, some vegans from birth are an exception to his language here] directly, actively, knowingly participating in the exploitation and imposed-suffering of sentient beings", which also leads to NIAVA, or so I have argued; and other definitions such as
  4. Someone who avoids all violence in their dietary and other consumption habits
  5. Someone whose consumption habits respect animal rights (such as the right to life, liberty, and well-being); this too is vulnerable to NIAVA
  6. Someone who has a "reasonable" restriction of animal products, which is an example of a non-criterion criterion just because it is so uselessly vague
  7. Definitions of vegan that provide lists of truly vegan animal uses and lists of non-vegan animal uses, which seems incoherent and also does not provide a criterion (like the last definition)
  8. Defining a vegan as someone who aims in all ways to use no animal products. This would seem to need no perfection. However, people make mistakes in what they aim for. Some ignoramuses do not know honey is nonvegan, for example. Or are ignorant of bees and thus discount them. It follows that it could never be enough in serious activism simply to aim to be vegan. One must successfully aim to be vegan. Then it becomes a question: What is it successfully to try to be vegan? The usual answer is avoiding all animal products, including honey. But this leads directly to NIAVA. Aiming to be vegan could also mean truly avoiding all contact with animal products, as in the case of our fanatic, or doing as our non-violent approximater does. This last "definition" does not resolve anything but only raises questions.
My sense of "vegan", based in somewhat advanced non-violence theory (although there is so very much more to articulate), has many advantages:
  • it allows clear criteria for practice
  • there is no problematic arbitrariness in indicating what is vegan and what is not
  • the list of vegan and non-vegan practices accords with common-sense in animal rights discourse
  • there is no self-contradiction like other definitions considered
  • it allows the long-term goal of individuals and societies that are entirely lifted out of the immoral morass of animal products
  • there is healthy room for debate over whether certain items are vegan, inquiring along the lines as to what is the greater or lesser harm

Someone might insightfully object (as a pundit-friend did who was helpfully trying to test my case) that although my definition has the advantages just outlined, it is itself arbitrary. That might be true if I were an intuitionist who just asserts or stipulates whatever seems convenient. However, I am not an intuitionist. I will defend my non-violence theory I think more thoroughly than anyone has ever defended any ethical theory before. (I could be wrong about that, of course. But I leave it to everyone to decide for himself/herself.) Anyway, if I can successfully defend my non-violence theory (a tall order, I know), then patterns of consumption would have to conform to the theory, which would mean that this sense or definition of veganism - far from being "arbitrary" - would actually be logically entailed by the theory itself.

You see? Sometimes theory really can help us to be practical!


  1. Well argued David. Stay tuned for my inevitable rebuttal ;)

  2. Fair warning, Jon: I have added the following parenthetical remark: "What is the criterion for the threshold? Veganism? But that is just our original problem. (Actually, his threshhold is "the minimum requirement", discussed below; but I argue below that this amounts to veganism)." Everything after "Veganism?" is an addendum. Thank you for your patience with my revisions.

  3. Oh, and sorry I have been misspelling your name, Jon. I will correct that awful oversight right away.

  4. I look forward to your rebuttal. I did not foresee it as "inevitable", but I suppose it was in spite of my ignorance.

  5. Notice, dear readers, right away the classiness of Jon's comment: a compliment and a smiley face. Nice.

  6. Nice and valuable essay, David. I look forward to Jon's reply. :-)

  7. Hey, thank you very much, Roger. That means a lot to me. Yes, I'm also looking forward to Jon's further inights.